NETWC: What motivated you to get involved in civil engineering in general, and transportation in particular?
Patricia Ott: My father was biggest influence growing up, and my biggest supporter in getting me involved in engineering. Growing up I was a tomboy, and I loved to build things with my father. I always had an aptitude for math and science, and I had a talent for mechanical drawing. Once I arrived at Rutgers University, one of the first courses I took exposed you to all the different types of engineering so that you could pick a path for your next four years. I really took a liking to Civil Engineering; I loved the lab work and working with concrete. I went to the construction side of things because at the time, there really was no distinct transportation field.
NETWC: How did your K-12 background prepare you for college?
PO: Not very well. We had separate tracks in my high school; one for those who wanted to go into college, and another for those who were planning on taking a vocational route. The problem was, I excelled at mathematics, but a lot of the courses I wanted to learn were in a different track. So I did my best to take courses in both tracks, even though it wasn’t smiled upon. I remember when I planned on applying to engineering school, my guidance counselor counseled me against engineering, saying I would find a four year college too difficult and the program too rigorous, and advised me to go to accounting college instead. Thankfully, I disagreed and had the support of my parents to move ahead with engineering.
NETWC: Were there any other female engineers with you in the program? It seems to be a rare major for young girls, especially at the time.
PO: The ladies room was never crowded. There were only four of us. And I chose an even rarer combination of doing a five year double major of Civil Engineering and Psychology.
NETWC: That’s a fascinating combination; why did you choose psychology? Is that something that you feel has helped you as an engineer?
PO: I had a passion for people, and understanding people and how they think from a cognitive standpoint. And I do feel like it helped me immensely in my career. When I was at NJDOT, there were career track that you could be on; you were either going to be an expert engineer, or you were going to be a manager. Thanks to my aptitude in psychology, I was able to supervise people very well and I eventually made director. I think being both an engineer and a manager of people are key abilities to have if you want to advance in your career.
NETWC: Why did you choose to work at NJDOT?
PO: Because they were hiring. The job market at the time was poor, and I remember interviewing thinking this was the best chance I had to get involved with building, design, and materials…things I was very passionate about. It was after being at NJDOT for a few years that one day the New Jersey Institute of Technology announced that they were starting a pilot program for a Masters in Transportation. They approached NJDOT about holding the program with a dozen of us from NJDOT, and that’s where transportation really became more prominent in my career.
NETWC: How did working for NJDOT help you shape your career?
PO: I’d say the most important aspect for working for NJDOT was that it allowed me to become a truly well rounded Engineer. Whether it was design, safety, construction, materials…I even spent a year working with the budget director which helped learn more about finances and allowed me to become a better engineer, and a better director.
NETWC: Would you say you have a career accomplishment that you are proudest of at NJDOT?
PO: I can tell you one of things I’m most proud of; I was voted on by my staff for the department’s diversity award, for having the most diverse staff. It made me feel extremely proud to have my department be recognized for all the different people we had brought in of all different backgrounds. Also, being able to look back now at all the people who I was able to bring in that have gone on to have successful careers at NJDOT themselves. It’s extremely rewarding. And in that vein, I would say the thing I miss the most about NJDOT is the people that I worked with.
NETWC: How does it compare to having your own firm?
PO: Both are wonderful, but going back to my fathers influence, he always told me to try and work for yourself if you can. I got to the point where I was able to retire and start my own business and I took it. It’s great because now I can focus in on the things I really care about. I get to focus on traffic, safety, and saving people’s lives.
NETWC: In regards to the next generation of engineers that you are helping to train, there are concentrated efforts to get more women involved in STEM careers. What kinds of barriers do you think exists to getting more women involved?
PO: Well I think there is still a stigma that exists for young women. I have never considered myself to be a female engineer; just an engineer. There is no gender associated with it. But still, the lack of role models that exist in the field helps contribute to the perception I think leads many young people away from the field.
Part of the difficulty also lies with the teachers themselves. I have many friends who are teachers in the K-12 level. They would not have any idea what to even talk to the students about, or where to begin in discussing STEM careers. You have to start early. In the safety world, we try to reach out to kindergartners to help develop a safety culture. Similarly, young people need to be reached in that K-12 timeframe if you want to instill a passion for STEM careers. Then they can carry it with them throughout the rest of their school days. The good thing is, there seems to be more opportunities today and more flexibility for students. The potential is out there, we just need to do a better job of inspiring them and educating them as to what a career in engineering actually entails.
There are so many potential avenues in STEM today that I think it limits the number of excuses you can make. People can enter STEM through engineering, planning, computer science…thanks to all the new technologies out there, the number of pathways are numerous.
NETWC: Are these barriers similar to what you faced?
PO: Absolutely. Things have changed for the better, but we still live in a culture that is inherently unequal. We talk a good game, but we need to do more to break down those barriers.
NETWC: What advice do you have for young women today who are interested in starting a career in engineering?
PO: Be fearless. I know many people, at least in my age group, who were fearful of math, and turned off by things they saw as “boys careers”. Life is tough enough without letting people put you into a box, and I think it’s important for young women to live up to their own expectations, and not the expectations that other people, or society in general has for them.
Also, I think it’s important to be goal oriented. I have seen studies that show that many women don’t take STEM majors; that’s one problem. But I’ve also see that many women who took take STEM courses in college ultimately avoid STEM careers. I’m sure there are a myriad of reasons for why that is, but we need to do a better job of continually motivating our young girls to see not only the path ahead of them, but where that path could eventually lead them.
When I did the Summer Transportation Institute, it was focused on careers. We did a half day program on safety, and we also did a piece on careers based on the four E’s. Engineering, Enforcement, EMS, and Educations. And I highlighted all the careers within those four E’s so that young people could see all the potential landing spots in transportation ahead of them.
NETWC: Thanks so much for speaking with us today Mrs. Ott, we appreciate you taking the time.